One "K" At A Time
Experiencing the Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto - a 440 Kilometer trek on skis across Finland
This original article supplied by Dale Bohm exclusively for use by xcskiworld.com. For more information on the 2004 Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, contact Nordic Saga Tours at 1-800- 848-6449 or visit their website at www.nordicsaga.com
Imagine cross-country skiing from the Russian border to the Swedish border across the forested hills of central Finland. Now imagine skiing 440 Kilometers, or roughly 273 miles in seven consecutive days and having the time of your life. Sounds impossible?
It's not if you experience the Rajalta Rajalle Hiito, a fully supported cross country ski trek held every March in Finland. The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, or commonly referred to as simply the RR, is now in it's 20th year and is billed as the world's longest organized ski event. From a modest beginning in 1983, the RR has developed into a significant international event that brings together over 320 participants from twenty different countries including Finland, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Japan, Denmark, Luxemburg, Czech Republic, France, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Great Britain, Canada and USA. Starting at the Russian border near Saunavaara, the course winds its way west through the towns of Kuusamo, Taivalkoski, Pudasjärvi, Ranua, and Kemi to the Swedish border in Tornio. Hovering just south of the Arctic Circle, the 440 Kilometer course meanders through some of the most beautiful scenery Finland has to offer and exposes one to true Finnish culture that would be difficult to experience by the average traveler. The event organizers take care of all of the details, making the adventure more enjoyable by transporting bags and offering a bus ride to the finish line in the event one cannot complete the daily distance. But the real heart and soul of the RR is the Finnish people themselves. Throughout the week, hundreds of volunteers and spectators make the RR a truly unforgettable experience by lending their support and encouragement along the way. The "K's" seem easier because of the fantastic support and beautifully groomed trails prepared by the event staff and various municipalities along the route. The RR is truly an adventure and something every avid cross-country skier should attempt at least once in their lifetime.
Finland here we come
In March 2003, a group of skiers from Seattle, Washington's Kongsberger Ski Club and others from throughout the U.S. flew to Finland to take on the challenge of the RR. The group was organized by Nordic Saga Tours of Edmonds, Washington who offer a variety of winter and summer adventure tour packages throughout Scandinavia. Many of the skiers in the group were veteran ski racers participating each year in big events such as the Birkebeiner in Norway and the Vasaloppet in Sweden but were unfamiliar with skiing in Finland. This was a perfect way to see the country while enjoying a ski adventure with family and friends.
The adventure started at the International Ski Camp in Oivanki. There were three groups of over one hundred skiers that competed in the RR, with the first group starting on Friday, March 7th. Our group was the second group, which started on Saturday, March 8th. For the first night, the group was divided into men and women and each given dorm style rooms shared by three other people. The dorms were four beds to a room with showers, bathrooms and kitchen area down the hall. The event organizers had planned to have the Kongsberger group and other Americans on the tour stay in the same dorm area to make communication easier. In the evening, everyone gathered together for dinner and then attended a "welcome" meeting to introduce all the participants and go over the details of the week ahead. At the meeting, event director Anitta Jaakola introduced herself along with ski guide Asta Flöjt and bus guide Mika Nieminen. Anitta spoke in several different languages and called up each participant to give them their official badge and instruction booklet. A custom hat was also given to 1st, 7th and 14th time participants. After a detailed explanation of the week ahead and a snack, everyone headed off to bed in anticipation of the days ahead.
Day One - 63km
The morning started with a hearty breakfast and a thirty minute bus ride to the starting point in Saunavaara. The course started out on a long road and then quickly turned into a narrow, twisty trail through the woods. Many skiers were seen adjusting their wax along the way due to the unusually warm weather. As the course opened up, the Russian border towers were in full view and then came "the hill", a _ mile monster hill that went straight up and was difficult to climb for many skiers. The course continued uphill for several miles and finally leveled off before another series of climbs. The waxing proved very difficult because of the near 0 centigrade temperature and changing weather conditions. A headwind greeted us between 20km to 30km and the course continued across several lakes and then became hilly near the town of Kuusamo. As the course neared 20km to the finish, a huge downhill greeted us complete with a road crossing at the bottom, yikes! As the course neared 10km to the finish, it merged with a local cross-country ski area with wide groomed trails and many recreational skiers out for an afternoon ski. The day one finish line was at the beautiful Holiday Spa Lodge in Kuusamo and everyone was exhausted from the difficult course. Many of the past participants said that this year's weather conditions made the first leg more difficult than in years past. One thing we all learned early on is a Finnish kilometer is longer than normal kilometer due to their measuring technique. The Finns simply measure from point A to point B, not taking into account twists and turns in the course. This is probably why the Finns are such great skiers because they're always skiing extra miles. After checking in with the event organizers at the finish, we picked up our luggage and headed off to our rooms. Some of the Kongsberger group stayed in cabins that slept up to six people and were a short walk from the hotel. The Holiday Spa Lodge was deluxe compared to the accommodations the night before and offered many amenities such as a large indoor swimming pool, sauna, massage, waxing service and live music on the weekends. After 63km (or more) of tough skiing, participants attacked the buffet with a vengeance and traded "war stories". Some talked about their concerns of finishing tomorrow's 72km distance when 63km seemed so hard. Others were concerned about finishing the entire RR because of the difficulty of the first day and having six more days to go. As we found out later, the key to the RR is one "K" at a time. After a short meeting with the event organizers to go over the next day's instructions, the group disbanded to wax skis, visit the bar or go off to bed.
Day Two - 72km
The morning came quickly and we rushed to eat breakfast, load our luggage and get on the bus that took us to the start of leg two. The course was very flat for the first 30km and seemed easy compared to the first day. A Teepee lunch stop greeted us around 35km complete with Reindeer soup, cheese bread and hot coffee. After the lunch stop, the course became hilly and then meandered through the forest and then into the town of Taivalkoski. All along the course, native Finns manned the service stops, which offered hot juice, raisins and dill pickles plus they gave encouragement to the participants. After a short ski across a lake, we trudged up the final hill to the finish at the Hotel Taivalkoski. Again, our group was divided with some in the hotel and others in a dorm area. The Hotel Taivalkoski was a unique hotel and featured an indoor pool, sauna, massage and waxing service. Our dinner was held at a nearby school and we were bussed a short distance from our hotel. After a great meal and a short meeting, we were on our own to relax and prepare for tomorrow.
Day 3 - 55km
After a short ride to the school from our hotel, we all ate breakfast and were off to tackle 55km. Day 3 proved to be even more difficult than day 1 because of a snowstorm and high winds. The course was beautiful for the first 10km with rolling hills and beautiful scenery. As the weather changed, the course became flat but due to the high winds and blowing snow, many of the skiers experienced icing of their ski wax. The lunch stop was at 28km and some skiers called it quits and rode the bus to the hotel. Many decided to forge on ahead and encountered near blizzard conditions and long grinding uphills. The blowing snow created havoc with our ski wax and icing was the order of the day. After reaching the mountain pass, we encountered a grooming machine coming from the opposite direction and were treated to a freshly groomed trail for the rest of the day. The rest stop at 41km was an old house that was almost like a museum. The Finnish woman that owned the house showed us around and offered us hot juice, chocolate and fruit to replenish our energy - it was a welcome stop! After a long climb to the finish, we then rode a T-bar ski lift up to our hotel. If you have never ridden a T-bar, it can be difficult for first-timers, especially when the lift operator doesn't speak English! The Hotel Syötekeskus was excellent, perched on top of the ski hill with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. It had all the amenities and outstanding Finnish style food. After dinner, the event organizers went over the instructions for the next day's activities and offered snacks and coffee during the meeting.
Day 4 - 84km
The sun greeted us on day 4 and today was hump day - over halfway through the adventure. By now, many skiers were sore after three tough legs and 195km of skiing and were showing signs of wear. The event organizers gave the option of starting at the 28km service stop instead of skiing the entire 84km distance on day 4 and encouraged all participants who felt too tired along the way to ride the bus to the finish. Knowing your limits is the key to this event due to the long distances and changing weather conditions. The first 28km was mountain skiing with many downhills and challenging terrain. The course flattened out after 28km and featured many open lake crossings with the scenery typical Finnish forests and wide-open spaces. One of the highlights of day 4 was a lunch stop featuring a Finnish girl dressed in a traditional Finnish costume with her pet reindeer. The Finns at the lunch stop offered participants hot soup, bread, juice and coffee. After a few photos with the Finnish girl and reindeer, we were off across the flatland and after hours of double poling, the weather changed and we finished the course on a huge lake in light snow and windy weather. The course ended in Ranua near our hotel and again our group was split into hotel rooms and hostels on the edge of a snow covered lake. After a great meal and meeting, we were off to wax skis, sauna or just relax in our rooms.
Day 5 - 44km
Today was group picture day and after breakfast we all gathered together and said "cheese". Actually, we said something in Finnish but it probably meant cheese. In any event, we were off for the "easy day" of the trek, or so we thought. The sunny weather fooled us into thinking it was going to be a walk in the park and the beautiful course meandered through the forest. A great lunch stop greeted us near the halfway point that served sausages, sweet mustard, dill pickles, chocolate and hot coffee plus also offered an old fashion weenie roast around an open pit fire. After relaxing and refueling at this excellent lunch stop, we left to tackle the remaining distance. After 5km, the wind picked up and we encountered the "North Pole" section. For miles we trudged through open areas of blowing and drifting snow. It reminded me that we were near the Arctic Circle and looked like pictures you see in National Geographic of explorers headed towards the North Pole. Finland is very far north and the weather can turn in an instant so it's best to be prepared. After hours of double poling, we encountered a rest stop that was a school in Ruano. The children of the town greeted us by ringing bells and handing out hand made welcome cards to all the participants as they skied in. Our group would later be bused back to the school after the finish to spend the night. The course continued for another 6km to the finish at Hosio. At the finish area inside an old home, participants relaxed and enjoyed hot coffee and a special anniversary cake baked especially to celebrate twenty years of the RR. The accommodations for the next two nights would be in schools and local homes, giving one a true sense of life in northern Finland. After a short bus ride back to the school in Ruano, the group was divided with the men across the way in the school gym and the women in the actual school. The showers and toilet (or water closet in Finland) were first come, first served so it paid to be quick before the hot water ran out. The sauna was open to women from 5-6pm and the dinner was held in a small cafeteria inside the school. After our nightly meeting, several people in the group took a moment to wander outside to view a Finnish sunset with Reindeer running across a field. Lapland is the birthplace of Santa Claus and the scene we witnessed reminded us of Christmas time and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We were all starting to appreciate the beauty of Finland and how fortunate we were to be on this adventure.
Day 6 - 56km
The day started early with breakfast and a bus ride to the start. As we were leaving, the children came out waving goodbye to the skiers as we all waved back. The town came together to support all the participants of the RR and this is the magic of the event - the Finnish people! The course was very flat for the entire 56km distance and followed forest roads all the way to the finish. If you weren't an expert at double poling before the trip, then you were now. Near the finish, there was some confusion because the trail split to Tornio, which was the course for Day 7 and some of the skiers mistakenly took that route. Further down the road, there was another option on the course with some skiers going to Honkamaa to spend the evening and the others staying in Kivalo. This tested the memory of those who attended the evening meeting because this section was explained in detail. After some confusion and the discovery of several lost skiers, we all gathered together for dinner and a raffle put on by the town. The accommodations were old world Finland with no showers, an outhouse and a sauna that was heated by a wood stove. An old Finnish ritual is to get hot in the sauna, then run outside naked and roll in the snow, then back in the sauna to pour water over your head. Another tradition occurred at the fire pit with Finns rubbing wax on their skis and then holding them over the open fire to melt the wax. Don't try this at home on your new $400 skis! After the sauna, a local Finnish man who really knew his craft treated us to a great massage. After an excellent dinner that included traditional Finnish food such as mashed potatoes, beets, reindeer stew and bread, we all gathered together for a raffle put on by the town before retiring for the evening. Sleeping proved difficult because we were packed into small rooms and many people were snoring. Earplugs were the only way to go!
Day 7 - 76km
By day 7, everyone was anxious to get on the trail to Tornio and to finish the event. The course was open early at 7:00AM because of the long distance of day 7 and meandered through forest that included some steep climbs and steep downhills. After 20km the course flattened out and crossed several rivers before entering the town of Kemi. As we skied through Kemi, many children could be seen skiing to school and made us realize why the Finns are such great cross-country skiers - they were born on skis! As we left town, we entered a ski area complete with a huge jump and ate lunch at a cafeteria near the bottom of the hill. As we headed out after lunch, we encountered beautiful groomed track for 10km before heading out on a river and across several open roads. The last 15km were on the Baltic Sea and a river leading up to Tornio. The course was groomed for both classic and skating and many participants who were tired of double poling chose to skate the final 10km. Finally, after 7 days and 440km of skiing, the finish line banner reading "Maali" came into view, what a beautiful site! Volunteers, who gave congratulations and offered assistance in carrying bags and finding luggage, greeted the finishers. Hot food was available following the finish and everyone was glad to have completed the event. Later in the evening, participants gathered for an excellent dinner and awards ceremony. Race director Anitta Jaakola gave each participant a diploma, a finisher's medal and a watercolor picture by renowned Finnish artist Rauno Salminen. After the diplomas were given out, each country went up to the front and performed a song or short presentation regarding their heritage. Afterwards, participants were treated to a live band and dancing through the night, although many were too tired to partake in the festivities.
The Morning After
The morning after was a time for reflection and a feeling of pride knowing you completed the longest ski event in the world. Many new friends were made during the week and it brought people from different countries and cultures together. The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto is only possible because of the hard work and cooperation of the event organizers, the various municipalities along the route and the volunteers. Many thanks go out to these individuals and the Finnish people for being such gracious hosts. The Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto is truly an adventure and experience of a lifetime.
For more information on the 2004 Rajalta Rajalle Hiihto, contact Nordic Saga Tours at 1-800- 848-6449 or visit their website at www.nordicsaga.com
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